I get to speak with eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney often, and that’s a real honor for me. He was the reigning Mr. Olympia when I first started reading the magazines and became a fan of the sport in 1987. It’s also significant that the very first Mr. Olympia contest I attended was the 1991 edition. It took place in Orlando, Florida, where I watched the TotaLee Awesome one defend his title a final time against a rising star from England named Dorian Yates. Lee announced his retirement at the end of the night, going out on top at only 31 years old. It’s safe to say that such a feat will never be duplicated.
One very surprising fact about Lee is that today, at 53 years old, he has no injuries, not even any nagging aches or pains. For a casual lifter that wouldn’t be so impressive, but it’s unheard of these days among pro bodybuilders. News of torn quads, pecs and biceps hardly even merits front-page status anymore.
I’m a full 10 years younger than Mr. Haney and not even a pro, yet my laundry list of injuries includes arthritis in both shoulders, a bone spur and nearly full loss of cartilage in the left shoulder, a full tear of the right triceps, chronic lower-back trouble that merely varies in pain level, tendinitis in the elbows and past partial tears of my right pec, a calf and a hamstring. Why am I so banged up when this great champion, who trained hard enough to hold off excellent challengers like Rich Gaspari, Lee Labrada, Mike Christian, Gary Strydom, Shawn Ray and Vince Taylor, has no lingering injuries or pain?
The answer lies in Lee’s famous quote: “Stimulate, don’t annihilate.” Haney trained hard, but more important, he trained smart. He never used as much weight in training as he could have because he always understood the risk-to-benefits ratio.
When we spoke about leg training not long ago, he mentioned that he squatted last in the workout so that he wouldn’t need to as much weight. That saved his spine from the pressure of constantly being crushed by 400 to 500 pounds or more, which he was more than capable of using. Instead, he stuck with 315 and still built his legs—but he saved his back. Meanwhile, the only other eight-time Mr. Olympia, Ronnie Coleman, was known for squatting up to 800 pounds and leg-pressing more than a ton. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Ronnie has had not one but three spinal surgeries over the past couple of years and still needs at least one more. My own back problems all stem from heavy squats. I always did them first and always went as heavy as I possibly could.
More recently Lee and I talked about shoulder training. Lee’s shoulders were massive. I asked him how heavy he used to go on seated dumbbell presses. His surprising reply? Sixties, and on rare occasions he might have gone as heavy as 70s. For a split second I confess to a smug satisfaction. I’ve gone as heavy as 140s on those and still routinely handle anywhere from 105s to 120s. Then I mentally slapped myself. Dumb-ass! That’s why your shoulders are trashed and his aren’t!
Lee believes in using good form and a smooth rep cadence that he often describes as a “check mark.” The lifting portion of the rep is ballistic, but the negative is always controlled. Most important, he always used a weight he could lift not only without assistance but also smoothly and without getting stuck and struggling. Many times I used weights on presses that I couldn’t get even one good rep with unless a spotter was helping. I trained much heavier than I should have, and I paid—and am still paying—the price.
I could go on and on with more examples of how “light” Haney trained, but the point is that he very wisely chose to train with just enough weight to get the job done—and no more. Heavy weights do have a place but only up to a point. If you’re putting just as much stress on your joints and connective tissues as you are your muscles, eventually you will find yourself injured or at the very least with a lot of nagging aches and pains that never go away and that come to limit what you can do in the gym.
My wife doesn’t believe that I can put on any more size, simply because all my injuries make it impossible for me to train as heavy as I used to on many exercises. She isn’t completely off base with that, but the more accurate way of putting it is not that I am limited by having to train lighter, but that my limitations are the direct result of going too heavy for many years when I should have gone lighter. I let my ego get the best of me.
We tend to think in terms of more is better, and getting stronger does go hand in hand with getting bigger—up to a point. We all need to figure out what that line is for us, individually, and avoid overstepping it.
It’s too late for me, as the damage has been done, but it’s not too late for many who are reading this. The next time you choose a weight, ask yourself, “Will this stimulate or annihilate?”
Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding—Muscle Truth From 25 Years In the Trenches, available at www.RonHarrisMuscle.com.